Camille Paglia has a must-read piece in Arion touting the almost-forgotten essays of Erich Neumann, an early 20th-century psychological theorist who actually got it right about the Mother Goddess, a favorite theory of the feminist ideologues who imagine that women once ruled the world as egalitarian matriarchs–until nasty ol’ male patriarchs came along and wrecked everything. Neumann, however, writes Paglia, found a lot to like in the idea of a Goddess, but only as an archetype of the essence of femaleness, not as a nicey-nice deity.
Here is what Paglia writes:
Goddess feminism went seriously wrong in accepting and promoting an error first made by the Swiss writer Johann Jakob Bachofen in his 1861 book, Das Mutterrecht (Mother Right). The worldwide ubiquity of prehistoric goddess artifacts led Bachofen to wrongly conclude that early societies were matriarchies, literally governed by women. His theory received wide circulation via the great British scholar of classical antiquity, Jane Harrison, who taught at Cambridge University from 1898 to 1922. I love Harrison’s books and have been specifically influenced by her theme of the chthonic (I say ‘chthonian’), an uncanny motif of earth cult. But she was simply mistaken about the existence of prehistoric matriarchy, for which no evidence has ever been found.
When the matriarchal hypothesis resurfaced in Jungian feminism, it had turned into Arcadian soap opera: once upon a time, there were peaceful, prosperous, egalitarian, goddess-worshiping societies, happily thriving for eons until they were viciously overthrown by men those greedy aggressors who invented violence, war, oppressive social hierarchies, and the unjust economic disparities we suffer from today. This naive view of political history was promulgated in innumerable feminist books over two decades (and is still detectable in some ecofeminist denunciations of the capitalist exploitation of nature).
The ancient Great Mother was a dangerously dual figure, both benevolent and terrifying, like the Hindu goddess Kali. Neumann saw this clearly, but [myth-man Joseph] Campbell and the goddess’ feminist boosters did not: they sanitized and simplified, stripping away the goddess’ troublesome residue of the archaic and barbaric. Neumann cited and praised Bachofen’s pioneering work in prehistory but was careful to note that the latter’s idea of matriarchy (as Neumann puts it in The Great Mother) must be ‘understood psychologically rather than sociologically.’
Male and female archetypes exist in the human mind, Paglia writes, because they exist in nature–and that is where Neumann’s essays would help to erase the all-prevalent feminist myth that male and female attributes are nothing more than artifcial “gender” roles imposed by our patriarchal society:
The deletion of nature from academic gender studies has been disastrous. Sex and gender cannot be understood without some reference, however qualified, to biology, hormones, and animal instinct. And to erase nature from the humanities curriculum not only inhibits students’ appreciation of a tremendous amount of great, nature-inspired poetry and painting but also disables them even from being able to process the daily news in our uncertain world of devastating tsunamis and hurricanes.
Correcting that is something that the Mother Goddess, properly understood, can actually do.